Overseas Filipinos fight for their right to vote

Author: Freda Editha O. Contreras
Published originally in Suite101.com on: September 30, 2002

A WORLDWIDE campaign and clamor to allow overseas Filipinos to vote in the Philippine national elections in May 2004, initially, is now actively taking place. In particular, campaigners are seeking for the passage of the Absentee Voting Bill (AVB) pending in the past many years in the Congress. Along with the AVB, overseas Filipinos are also seeking for the passage of the Dual Citizenship law.

This year saw the most active and widely-participated campaign, so far, by overseas Filipinos for their right to suffrage. Assisting and working along with them are a few concerned Philippine-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private individuals. While in the past many years the clamor to vote was concentrated only in Europe, it is now worldwide, made possible through the Internet. Through their coordinated effort, the Philippine government took considerable notice and for the first time since the 1987-amended Constitution provided for the inalienable right to suffrage to overseas Filipinos, a Philippine President, in the person of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, deemed it urgent that the Congress pass the AVB. In her State of the Nation Address (SONA), both last year and this year, President Arroyo asked the Congress to pass a law which will enable the overseas Filipinos to vote.

Senate consultations

Early this year, selected members of the Senate, held consultations in areas abound with Filipinos – in Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Europe and America – aimed at coming up with a comprehensive and practical provisions for the actualization of overseas voting. The group of Senators then was one in assuring the overseas Filipinos that the AVB will be passed into law no later than June 2002. The Speaker of the House even announced that he will resign from his post if the AV law won’t be passed by June. [Later he was heard saying “before the end of the year.”] As it came out, the bill is still pending as at this writing. Yes, it was passed alright by the opposition Senators during a “coup” session held last June 5, 2002, but the act was later negated with the mere fact that it was hastily and ‘unlawfully’ done.

By early March the International Coalition for Overseas Filipinos’ Voting Rights (ICOFVR) came into being, thought of by Manila supporters to act as an umbrella coalition that all interested groups could come under. The idea was then introduced on a mailing list, the OFW-Vote, owned and administered by the Overseas Filipinos WorldNet Foundation, Inc. (OFWNet). Soon enough, the most active Saudi Arabia-based Filipinos adopted the name and was used to unify their group during a one-day dialogue and consultation held between the visiting Senate members and the Filipino Community in Riyadh last March 2002. By June 2002, the ICOFVR expressed its solidarity move through a one-page paid advertisement in the widely-read Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) newspaper. Filipinos overseas, as well as in the Philippines, contributed from their pockets and within 48 hours were able to accomplish one unprecedented move and showmanship of unity. The act indeed showed that the overseas Filipinos are a force to reckon with!

OFW ‘Congress’

Also in June, a counterpart government dubbed as ‘OFW Congress’ was initiated by the OFWNet to add meat to the fight. Overseas Filipinos and their representatives acted as ‘senators’ and ‘congressmen’ and took part in interpellations over the controversial AVB, in the presence of a few Philippine Congress personalities. Although attended by very few OFs and supporters, the activity nevertheless played a significant role in the campaign to have that AVB passed into law. It specifically exposed some congressmen’s apprehensions and hesitations and most significantly their ignorance of the overseas Filipinos’ situation abroad and their stand in the fight for the right to suffrage. For a while one Congressman who acted as spokesperson was attacked and ridiculed via the Internet by some members of the worldwide AV advocacy group.

Another act to show concern for the Congress’ inability to pass an enabling law for AV has been the attendance in all the sessions held at the Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly) Hall religiously covered by representatives of Kakammpi or Kapisanan ng mga Kamag-anak ng Migranteng Manggagawang Pilipino (organization of relatives of Filipino migrant workers), eLagda Inc (that group which initiated the worldwide signature campaign to oust President Joseph Estrada in late 2000), the OFWNet Foundation and a few concerned individuals. Notable among the spectators is Ellen Sana of Kakammpi who also attended in the past special sessions held by the Senate Committee on Suffrage and likewise timely reported to the advocacy group via the OFW-Vote mailing list. She had been relentless and is recognized as the most active among the fighters. It was reported that during the last session of the Congress in September, she was brought to tears by her frustrations over the failure of the lawmakers to approve the AVB as promised.

In order to sustain the campaign after the Congress’ failure to pass the AV law this past session, the voting advocacy members started with their letter-writing campaign. Individual campaigners were requested to send letters to editors of a few leading newspapers in Manila. Showing coordination and ability to participate as requested, a number of overseas Filipinos diligently wrote, as assigned for the day, to certain newspaper editor or columnists. One letter, written by ex-OFW Rhoel Mendoza got to be published. As well, a number of letter-writers were mentioned by one columnist when he did a summary of all the letters he received. As spearheaded by Saudi-based Filipinos, letters were also sent to their respective Congressmen/women through its ‘Tutukan si Congressman‘ (Eye the Congressman) campaign, asking for their support to pass the AV law. A few letters got answered and subsequently shared via the OFW-Vote mailing list and other related egroups. Letters were also sent to Senators.

Campaigners of the AVB

Noteworthy is the OFW Net’s active role as one of the front liners in the fight, ably represented by Dr. Eduardo ‘Ka Edong’ del Rosario (chairman of the Board of Trustees), Dra. Rachelle ‘Chee’ Garcia (managing director, also an elected BOT official) and Cathy Ledesma (political division head). Based in Manila, the OFWNet advocates both political and economic empowerment of overseas Filipinos. Noel Esquela and Jun Aguilar of Filipino Migrants Workers based in Manila are also names which come to fore insofar as AVB campaign is concerned.

US-based EMPOWER’s Marvin Bionat, who initiated the call for voluntary contribution for the full-page PDI advertisement, is also worth mentioning. He very recently coined the unified statement for the final ‘stand and act’ to have the AVB passed this October session of the Congress. For the full text, please refer to this link: http://www.philippineupdate.com. The Europe-based Platform of Filipino Migrant Organisations in Europe, recognized as the initiator of the campaign for the passage of the AVB, is of course one group deserving merit for the efforts done in the overseas voting advocacy front. It may be recalled that it organized ‘Advocacy Visits’ to the Philippines in August 1998, August 2000 and August 2001 to express concern on the Congress’ inability to enact an AV law. (For related story, please refer to On Overseas’ Filipinos right to vote). Names which come to mind are Ding Bagasao, Leila “Lalay” Rispens-Noel, Grace Cabactulan, Basco Fernandez, Beth de Groot and Carlo Butalid.

The Federation of Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce (FPACC) has also made its dent in the AV advocacy by way of initiating a signature campaign through its ‘Filipino World Alliance for Dual Citizenship and Absentee Vote’ project. Signatures collected were handed over to the Congress last June by Ms. Yolanda Stern, the current FPACC president. Another group, the Association of Ilonggos of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Inc. represented by its president, Pearl Garganera-Gauzon, Esq. is also an active participant in the worldwide campaign. A latest addition is Joe Garrido-led Ilocanos4AV, an organization of Ilocanos in California, USA. Other names notable as fighters for the passage of the AVB in the US are Robert Ceralvo, Cesar Torres, Gil Ramos, Ren Arrieta, Nat Duenas, Gerry Azusa, Perry Diaz and Jess Guim.

In Canada, one recognized fighter is Ms. Terry Olayta of the United Filipino Mothers Association (UFMA) of Toronto. As private individual fighters, both Winda  ‘Moonglow’ Lagumbay Pettila and Robert ‘Bob’ Gabuna are notable. In Japan, the names Yuko Takei and Antonina ‘Ka Tonyang’ Binsol surface and despite the cold treatment of Filipinos there on the subject, they managed to gather a few thousands signatures for the worldwide campaign. In Singapore, the most vocal advocator is Ofellia Mananquil-Bakker, known as ‘Tita O’ to the subscribers of the OFW Community of Lists of which OFW-Vote is subbed. Daphne Ceniza-Kouk of eLagda Hong Kong is another person identified with the AVB campaign. With ease, she can travel back to Manila whenever her presence is needed, just as in one of the advocacy group’s strategies of getting the support of Philippine press and media people.

Perhaps the most extensive and well-organized of all overseas groups in the fight for the right to vote, active members-wise, that is, is the ICOFVR-Saudi Arabia chapter. The group members, composed of strong-willed leaders such as Alfredo Ganapin, Mike Bolos, Rashid Fabricante, Tony Ranque, Isagani Manalo, Manny Lector and many more (prominent names too many to mention) have lately handed over to the Congress over three thousand signatures for the AV campaign. In a very strong statement, the signatories advocate, among others, ‘economic’ boycott which calls, if necessary, for stoppage of remittance to the Philippines should the AV law not passed this year. The statement also calls for an action of ‘No vote’ by their family members and friends for those Congress personalities who are unsupportive of their cause. In order to solidify the fight and other OFWs’ concerns, the Saudi group has lately formed an alliance composed of different organizational heads from the three recognized regions: central (Riyadh), western (Jeddah) and eastern (Al-Khobar).

Current stand

The overseas Filipinos and their partners in the Philippines have tried all means to lobby for the passage of the Absentee Voting law yet their pleas were again set aside by the Congress during its last session in August/September. It is now about to open this first week of October. Tireless and unrelented, the worldwide voting advocacy members are now making a stand. Should the AVB not passed into law, the following actions and measures will be done (as copied from the EMPOWER site):

1. NOW we ask ALL our families in the Philippines to show sympathy to our just cause: ACTIVELY SUPPORT politicians who push for immediate passage, and BLACKLIST AND BOOT OUT OF OFFICE those who directly or passively oppose absentee voting! We will provide a complete list of our political allies, as well as those who are blocking passage, and marshal all our resources to either ELECT THEM or KICK THEM OUT of office! For the most recalcitrant politicians, we will not wait until the next elections: We will partner with our allies in the mainstream Philippine media and use the tools of modern communications, including the Internet, to EXPOSE them for their anti-migrant politics!

2. NOW we appeal to members of the international community–including human rights organizations, aid agencies, foreign governments, and transnational businesses with conscience–to exert all their moral, political, and economic sway in our fight for a basic human right: PLEASE JOIN US IN URGING the Manila administration to finally demonstrate the political will to enfranchise overseas Filipinos! We are now launching a letter-writing campaign to expose the immoral political apartheid that has kept 7 to 8 million overseas Filipinos voiceless.

3. NOW we ask ALL overseas Filipinos and foreign nationals to make a hard but powerful choice to show solidarity in our now epic struggle for political inclusion: IF BY THE END OF OCTOBER THE ABSENTEE VOTING BILL IS STILL ROTTING ON THE CONGRESSIONAL SHELF, LET US SUSPEND UNNECESSARY VISITS to the Philippines UNTIL absentee voting becomes law! As much as we like to be home, we will dramatize the gravity of Congress’s colossal failure by staying away from a country whose government has continued to treat 7 to 8 million of its citizens as political outcasts.

4. NOW we call upon ALL overseas Filipinos who value their right of suffrage to use our ultimate economic leverage to bring the absentee voting issue to the fore: USE OUR REMITTANCE AS A WEAPON to urge Congress to get its act together!

·This is NOT a call to completely stop sending funds to our families back home. We cannot punish our families for the failure of politicians. It is a campaign to encourage overseas Filipinos to REMIT FUNDS OUTSIDE THE RADAR SCREEN of government until the administration realizes that we mean business. Currently, around 70 percent of all remittances go through banks, which are monitored and taxed by the government. Our contribution to the country’s foreign exchange reserves has been enormous. To prevent the government from laying its claim to our hard-earned dollars, we encourage ALL overseas Filipinos to send funds through non-bank channels, preferably through colleagues, friends, family, or private agencies. For gifts, we encourage ALL overseas Filipinos to send balikbayan boxes instead of cash.

·If our families have money deposited in banks in the Philippines, we encourage them to utilize those funds, as we make deposits in our banks abroad for their use AFTER passage. It is a temporary arrangement that will send a clear message to an administration that has so far paid lip service to our fight for political empowerment.

·IF BY THE END OF OCTOBER THE ABSENTEE VOTING BILL IS STILL LANGUISHING IN THE LEGISLATURE, WE WILL DESIGNATE A SPECIFIC PERIOD AT WHICH TIME WE WILL COMPLETELY REFRAIN FROM REMITTING FUNDS. WE ASK ALL OVERSEAS FILIPINOS TO BE PREPARED FOR THIS EVENTUALITY!

JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED!

IT’S TIME WE MAKE MEMBERS OF CONGRESS DO THEIR SWORN DUTY TO ALLOW THE 7 TO 8 MILLION OVERSEAS FILIPINOS TO EXERCISE THEIR INALIENABLE RIGHT TO VOTE!

LET US ALL TAKE A STAND! LET US ALL ACT TO PASS THE ABSENTEE VOTING BILL BY END OF OCTOBER!

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